historian, author, actress, playwright, civil-rights activist, producer
Angelou, birth name Marguerite Johnson, was born in St. Louis, Missouri
on April 4, 1928. She was born the second child of Bailey Johnson,
Sr. and Vivian (Baxter) Johnson, with an older brother, Bailey, Jr.
Maya lived a difficult and complicated life. In 1931, Maya and her
brother moved to live with their grandmother, Annie Johnson Henderson,
in Stamps, Arkansas. When Maya was eight, her father took her brother
and her from Stamps to visit their mother back in St. Louis. “It
was there, in 1936, in a poorly supervised household, that Maya was seduced
and raped by her mother’s boyfriend, Mr. Freeman” (Lupton 5). Freeman
was later beaten to death, supposedly by Maya’s three uncles. Because
of this incident, Maya withdrew into silence, and Bailey, Jr. and she returned
to Stamps, where she remained mute for five years.
In 1940, Angelou graduated with honors from eighth grade at Lafayette Country
Training School. The
next year, her brother and she moved to San Francisco to live with their
mother, Vivian. She attended the California Labor School at night,
and “gave an early sign of enormous potential to succeed by becoming the
first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco” (Lupton 5). In
that same year of 1944, she graduated from Mission High School, and experienced
a life altering event. At the age of sixteen, Angelou became pregnant,
and gave birth to her first son, Clyde (Guy) Johnson.
For the next several years, Angelou held a variety of unusual jobs, including
Creole cook, nightclub waitress, prostitute, and madam. She had to
go through each of these jobs in order to provide for her son, while living
in a harsh economic situation. She was a young mother, trying to
survive with a lack of wisdom, job training, or any advanced schooling.
“Nevertheless, she was able to survive through trial and error, while at
the same time, defining herself in terms of being a black woman” (Lupton
6). In 1949, while in her early twenties, Angelou married her first
husband, Tosh Angelos, who was a white man. This marriage only lasted
for three years, and they divorced in 1952.
Due to her nightclub performances, Angelou was proven to have a natural
talent, and won a scholarship
to study dance with Pearl Primus, a Trinidadian choreographer. She
also danced with the acclaimed African American performer and choreographer,
Alvin Ailey. Angelou performed in famous productions, such as Porgy
and Bess and Calypso Heatwave. Because she was on tour
all the time, her son Clyde lived with her mother Vivian. Angelou
began to feel guilty, due to the fact that her brother and she lived with
their grandmother instead of their mother. She promised herself to
give up her major tours and focus on mothering her adolescent son.
In her new New York environment, she found completion as an actress, writer,
and political organizer.
Angelou’s career reached a climax in 1960, when she was offered the role
of the White Queen in Jean Genet’s The Blacks, a satirical play
about the reversal of racial power. She was also politically active
during this time period. After being moved by a sermon by Martin
Luther King, Jr., Godfrey Cambridge and
she organized a fundraiser called “Cabaret for Freedom.” Because
she was such a strong supporter of Dr. King, she was appointed the northern
coordinator of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) from
1959 to 1960.
In 1961, Angelou met South African freedom fighter, Vusumzi Make.
She fell in love with his intelligence and charisma, and went with him
to London to get married, even though it was never made legal. Going
against Make’s wishes, Angelou took a job as associate editor of the Arab
Observer, from 1961-1962. Due to many problems, Make and Angelou
separated, and Clyde and she planned on moving to Liberia. Due to
a traumatic car accident, Angelou and Clyde had to settle in Ghana.
In Ghana, Angelou worked as the assistant administrator of the School of
Music and Drama at the University of Ghana. She also worked for the
Ghanian Broadcast Corporation and the Ghanian Times newspaper.
She also met some of the most influential
people of her life, W.E.B. Du Bois, Julian Mayfield, and Malcolm X.
As part of her political career, in 1965, she organized a demonstration
in support of King’s March on Washington, and arranged Malcolm X’s itinerary
for his visit to Ghana that same year.
Also in 1965, Angelou and her son came back to the United States.
She was approached with two memorable
events. Malcolm X called her telling her that he was just rescued
from being shot at. He then asked her if she would stay over with
him, but she replied by saying she was desperate to get home. Three
days later, she found out that Malcolm X had been assassinated (February
21, 1965). Three years later in 1968, Angelou ran into Martin
Luther King, Jr. at a tribute to W.E.B. Du Bois. He asked for her
help in asking the nation’s black preachers to support his march by donating
one day’s collection a year. She agreed to help him, starting the
day after her birthday. On her birthday, she received a phone call
stating that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated (April
these rough times, Angelou’s writing career took off with full force.
Angelou’s first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was published
in 1969. This was an autobiographical account of the first sixteen
years of her life. This book was nominated for a National Book Award,
and was later made for television. In 1971, Angelou was married to
Paul Du Feu. Two more autobiographical books were published, Gather
Together in My Name in 1974, and Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin
Merry Like Christmas in 1976. She also wrote three volumes of
poetry, drama and television plays, and two screenplays.
In the decade of the 1980s, Angelou gained even more reputation with two
more autobiographies, The Heart of a Woman (1981, the year she also
divorced Du Feu), and All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes
along with several more volumes of poetry. Also in 1981, Angelou
received the lifetime appointment as Reynold’s Professor of American Studies
at Wake Forest University. “Although she has won greater acclaim
for her memoiristic works than for her poetry and drama, the peak of her
fame may have come in 1993, when she composed the poem “On
the Pulse of Morning” for President Bill Clinton’s inauguration” (Bloom
2) . In 1994, Maya Angelou published The Complete Collected Poems
This book starts from her earliest collections of poetry to her latest.
Maya Angelou is a very talented individual, being able to speak the languages
of French, Spanish, Italian, and West African Fanti. She is also
very educated, receiving honorary degrees from Smith College, Mills College,
and Lawrence University. Angelou has had the privilege of living through
many important decades for the struggles of African Americans, such as
the Civil Rights Movement, and the tragic, unfortunate deaths of two great
leaders, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Maya Angelou has
been and still is a great role model for African Americans of all ages.
Her life has showed that through the troubles and the hard times, an individual
can still come out victorious. She is given proof that with determination
and perseverance, an African American woman can achieve great accomplishments.
Three Poems by Maya Angelou (Click to read):
Links to Impressive Websites about Maya
Bloom, Harold. Women Memoirists:
Volume One. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1998.
Lupton, Mary Jane. Maya Angelou, A Critical
Companion. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1998.